Updated: Aug 7, 2022
Our Lady has revealed a number of times that the last battle will be for the family. It seems a divinely instituted timely ploy to save the best for last. Which makes the family a really special place to be.
Oscar the Musical Puppy
By Fr. Jonathan Atchley
Ever since he was a puppy, Oscar loved piano music. His master was a concert pianist who practiced long hours, and Oscar scrambled from his bed on the second floor to sit near the fireplace, trembling even as the master went through Hanon’s unbearably tedious finger exercises in ten minutes without a flaw. The puppy’s eyebrows furrowed wondering which book would follow—not the black one, he’d hoped. Yes, the yellow brown! Ah, this was one of his favorites: Volume two of Liszt’s transcriptions of Beethoven’s Symphonies. The master never did anything theatrical as lean back and crack his knuckles; he just dug in and worried his fingers following this lyrical linear magic, the sixth symphony better known as “The Pastoral.” Short crescendo notes grew in power and majesty, sending the puppy scrambling away from under the piano, fearfully imagining the storm was blowing with gale force. The music’s magic overwhelmed him with such excitement that he thought he even felt the storm’s moisture.
“Bad puppy! Outside with you now!” the maid hushed her disappointment so as not to interrupt the master, but swept away the little dog and wiped up its accidental spill before it could be noticed. Oscar had to listen to muted notes the rest of the day on the other side of double pained windows, and he quickly learned not to express his excitement in this particular manner.
Oscar grew a bit and learned quickly all the doggy tricks presented to him: roll over, sit, bark, play dead, shake hands, and so on. But when the people left him behind on an errand that did not involve walking the dog, Oscar practiced sitting upright on the piano bench. He learned to tuck his tail under just so that he could reach the keys. And Oscar began to practice his scales.
But it was a much more difficult thing learning chords with paws that couldn’t spread like the Master’s. That just made him all the more earnest to apply himself to his studies, and soon he adapted to a quickly played broken chord and staccato style scales. Hour after hour he sat by the fireplace when students came in for their lessons. “Hello Oscar. Good doggy,” they’d say one after the other, as he wagged his tail in anticipation more from what he could learn with this or that lesson than in a friendly petting or scratch behind the ears.
“Attack the keys with your fingers like a snake that strikes,” the Master gently rebuked one student. Oscar looked down at his paws and willed his claws to strike out at imaginary keys. “Keep your wrists bent!” Oscar would frown and focus as he went through the drills with each student, imagining his paws bent and pounding like pistons. “Are you reading the notes or guessing?” Oscar didn’t have to worry about that; he was up every evening pouring over the night lit sheet music left carelessly strewn atop the piano, until after several months of diligent study he knew how long to carry a bar of 32nd notes in a mordant and what a diminished chord looked like as easy as he could identify his favorite brand of doggy food in his bowl. He not only learned to play simple melodies by sound, having heard them over and over again; by the time he was a year old he could imitate the tempo and dynamics of various pianists’ styles. By the time he was two, he could correct a student’s faux pas with his eyes closed. “Glissando!” he frowned pensively before his master thundered the same suggestion aloud.
His grasp of theory was fine. What Oscar couldn’t manipulate well enough to his liking was the keys. His paws just weren’t formed for double handed runs, complex, extended chords and delicate, bird-like trills. He would sit at the piano for hours at a time, in mute frustration, sadness and even despair. “I’ll never learn to properly play Chopin’s slowest of etudes,” he thought to himself, though he no longer had to read the music because by then he’d already memorized it. Oscar felt his musical career had hit bottom, and thoughts of running away plagued him; even devilish temptations of ripping luxurious furniture fabrics or leaving behind little surprises in retaliation occurred to him. Envy crept in his heart, and Oscar could no longer enjoy the pleasure of sitting near the master’s feet and feel the reverberating swells replenish his wretched soul with a warm and healthy glow.
The master took notice as the dog slumped away when practice began. Various professional opinions followed. He was taken to a doggy psychiatrist. “He’s stressed out and could use a prescription of Xanax when anxiety overtakes him,” came the expert diagnosis. Oscar dutifully spit out each pill and watched it dissolve in the fish tank. Soon the fish were swimming lazily in circles, then squares and finally in psychedelic shapes and colors. No one seemed to notice because they were tropical.
“He’s going through a phase,” another offered. “If I were you, I’d have him see a psychic.” The next day they drove him to a Madame Leona, who consulted her Ouija board from Fiji, pondering the meaning of five jokers drawn straight in a row from a regular looking poker deck. In an old-world accent she pronounced the dog lovesick and quickly made the fee of two one hundred-dollar bills reappear in the form of a receipt with her own slight of hand, along with a hastily scrawled address of the local lonely-hearts dog pound.
And that w as how Oscar met Cecilia, a pedigreed mutt with long lashes and gentle manner. With her support and encouragement, he set aside his frustrations and once again took to sitting at the keyboard, winsomely playing chopsticks in anticipation of his first litter of pups. Fatherhood made Oscar feel like a new dog. By the third litter, he’d learned a simple refrain by Scarlatti, and by the sixth his first gray hairs appeared, along with an increased reach as his paws had stretched to a full five notes. Why, he was even drilling out simple trills! Still, he felt that he had reached his limit and for a second time felt himself falling back into failure and frustration. With tears in his eyes, Oscar increased his hours of practice while the Masters were away, but with little tangible improvement. Cecelia’s confidence in Oscar never wavered, although she too realized that her puppies’ father was at his musical peak and perhaps even beginning to decline. “I still love to hear you play, dear,” she smiled, while nudging their last litter of puppies back into their basket.
One frolicsome fellow had slipped away, unseen, however, and skidded on the smooth tile floor to a corner of the living room where other musical instruments were piled up or boxed and long forgotten. The curious pup flopped over to one lone upturned basket and began to paw at it, tapping on the timbale’s face with a natural sense of rhythm. A pleasant series of “thunks” came out. The pup’s ears pricked up, and she began to investigate what sounds could be produced with a flat paw versus a single claw. In a few minutes Oscar and Cecelia were amazed and amused: their little Jessica was pounding out her first paradiddle.
Within the week, Oscar was holding class for all the pups, teaching them musical theory for violas, harmonicas and even a rickety washboard. By month’s end, one held the trombone upright while another blew out freakish notes from its mouthpiece. One floppy puppy was plucking away madly at a bass guitar, slapping and popping the strings in a kind of Latin fusion funk. His sister flourished castanets while whirling like a grinning dervish. Papa Oscar felt as proud as a peacock, though stern looks he learned at the feet of the Master over the occasional impromptu outbursts helped keep the puppies in line until they could discover and begin to hone their musical talents.
Eight months later, “Papa and The Pups” (now well on their way to adolescence) played Saturday afternoons in a local free animal shelter. Mama Cecelia signed photos of her brood. Not a bad life, she sighed, turning fond eyes on the father of their gifted litter now glowing under layers of multicolored glitter paint applied liberally for the show. Oscar smiled back at his lovely spouse, then spun his bar stool up a notch or two and led the dogs midst hooting and howling from the crowd in a famous Louis Armstrong tune. While the throng howled and cheered, Oscar was caught up, momentarily, with a marvelous miracle that was his: looking fondly at his babies now grown, understanding that they would learn and experience so much more than he would ever know, he was filled with at once with a heart-breaking pride and humility.
Accompanying the Pups on the piano, he crooned sweetly to his audience, as much as to his family and friends…” Oh, what a wonderful world!”